Most of us work in a state of perpetual distraction, multitasking and checking phones and emails every few minutes. Constant communication and immersive tech have made it almost impossible for us to stay focused on the complex, problem-solving tasks that push our work forward – ushering in huge consequences for our wellbeing, as well as our productivity.
A ton of “shallow work” fills our days – like emails, Slack messages, manual admin and tool notifications. Flitting between these tasks slowly maxes out our attention, leaving us overwhelmed, unfulfilled and unproductive. This also contributes to a culture of busyness, where we seem to work flat out, but with very little to show for it at the end of the day.
In sharp contrast, there’s deep work, which promises dividends in terms of productivity, employability and happiness. But what exactly is deep work and does this work philosophy buzzword actually have any substance? In this guide, we’ll break down the main talking points behind the concept to assess its wider context and usefulness. We’ll then move on to lay out exactly how you can practice deep work and thrive by it.
Deep work is the ability to concentrate deeply on a difficult task for prolonged periods of time without getting distracted. It creates that intense, out-of-body kind of focus that makes you completely oblivious to what’s going on around you – the kind that produces your best work.
The term “deep work” was coined by Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and the concept has been quickly adopted as a useful antidote for modern working practices saturated with unrewarding and unproductive distractions.
Deep work stands in direct opposition to shallow work – non-cognitively demanding, highly replicable tasks that don’t create any real value and can be performed in a state of distraction, like managing email, responding to Slack and logging time sheets. This shallow work leads to us spending huge amounts of our day switching context, which reduces our ability to perform at our cognitive peak. (It takes about 23 minutes to refocus after each distraction).
Let’s be real – many of us suffer from “inbox anxiety”, and can’t go 30 minutes without checking our email. We’re immediately available to new requests, using asynchronous tools synchronously and dropping whatever we’re doing to check a Slack notification or answer an unimportant email.
As a result, our digital interactions have become increasingly passive – built around receiving and consuming information, instead of acting with intention. Our perpetual busyness is unrewarding and stressful, and dilutes the attention we have available for our work. It makes it impossible to reflect on what truly matters and whether our efforts are actually useful.
This is precisely what deep work aims to solve. It’s a method for reclaiming productive focus, for being present on the work that matters, and for working with impact.
Newport positions the ability to perform deep work as a key to securing competitive advantage in the workplace. Those who practice it will outstrip colleagues with the quality and quantity of their work – and ultimately land the best jobs.
But he argues it also has a deeper aim of satisfaction and happiness. In contrast to shallow work (which is draining, stressful and unsatisfying), deep work challenges people to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. The fulfillment gained from concentrating intently on a high-skill task is one he feels can be extended to life more generally. Not least, the ability to immerse yourself in whatever you’re doing in one moment and achieve better “presence” is useful. So, deep living = good living.
That said, deep work isn’t easy. As a skill that needs to be developed, you can’t just expect to be good at it right away – it requires routine and sustained willpower (more on that further down). But sticking with it is certainly worth the effort. Here are just four of the biggest deep work benefits you can expect to enjoy with regular practice:
The ability to do deep work is a skill and, like any skill, the more you work on it the more proficient you become.
Strengthening your deep work muscles helps improve your concentration – helping you lock focus on a specific task, and stick at it for longer periods of time. You might begin only being able to focus deeply for 45 minutes, but regularly practicing and pushing deep work can help you scale this. Aside from boosting your productivity and the quality of your work, being able to work on mentally taxing tasks for long periods of time helps you to build presence in everything you want to do.
Deep work helps us quickly develop new skills and solve the complex problems that move companies forward. In addition, working at an elite level – where you produce more and better work in less time – clearly comes with huge competitive advantages.
Since deep work is currently under-practiced as a skill, Newport believes that those who can produce high-quality work at a superior rate will quickly outpace their colleagues and land the best jobs. In an increasingly automated future, this ability to quickly grasp and engage new skills is also essential to our job security and continued employability.
Deep work challenges people to regularly accomplish difficult and meaningful tasks. It essentially provides a framework for accessing and extending productive flow states – where we produce our best work. When we achieve something valuable, we feel an intense sense of happiness, purpose and satisfaction. So there’s a deeply emotional benefit to deep work, too.
When we’re constantly distracted and multitasking, it's difficult to remember what really matters and reflect on what we’re actually contributing towards that. People naturally search for meaning and connection, but a constant flow of shallow work and multitasking leaves little cognitive space for this.
In contrast, deep work challenges us to consider the true value of our time – it’s about understanding what work actually helps you achieve your goals, and redirecting your efforts to immerse yourself in it. In championing time and mental energy for our most important, useful work, Newport believes regular deep work can support a state of eudaimonia – where we feel we’re achieving our full human potential.
Deep work sounds pretty simple in principle – just get some quiet time and focus on a piece of work for a while, right?
But it actually takes quite a lot of discipline and thought to continually repeat. There's a whole supportive framework behind deep work to ensure you actually get quality work out of it, whatever your role and responsibilities, whatever you're working on. The following section breaks down the basics, so you can start your own very first deep work experiment.
Doing deep work is hard and takes some effort to get going, but it’s not meant to be a bore – it’s the intense kind of concentration you only get when you’re super into something. Think of your first encounter as a test of your attention, self-control and exploratory abilities. You’ll probably learn something unexpected about yourself along the way.
If you’re trying it out in an office or at home, find an undisturbed space, block out time in your calendar, turn off your phone, put your headphones on, trigger your out-of-office message and let people know you’re not to be disturbed. Do everything to make sure you have your own undivided attention.
But be realistic – while Cal Newport suggests deep work means roughly 90-minute stretches of uninterrupted time, you may not get there immediately. Don’t put yourself off the method forever by diving in too deep, too fast.
In the following section, we’ll walk through the entire deep work process, from choosing the right depth philosophy for your working style, to knowing when to come up for air. But essentially, the basic steps for performing deep work are pretty straightforward:
The repetition is crucial here. Newport stresses that deep work is a skill that needs to be trained; you need to keep repeating it to strengthen it, as you would a muscle.
In order to work long-term, deep work has to match your lifestyle and the nature of your work. Luckily, there are a lot of different approaches – or “depth philosophies” – to make it fit your circumstances. These are effectively long-term strategies for doing deep work, and Newport has identified four of them to choose from:
Depth philosophy at a glance: Your personal approach for achieving deep work, from completely removing shallow work, to carving out regular periods for it in your daily routine, to performing whole weeks of deep work at a time.
Deep work is undoubtedly easier as an individual than as a team, and there are several reasons for this. If you work in a team, you just can’t announce to your coworkers that you’re going AWOL for a few weeks to do some deep work. Being uncontactable for just a few days, or more often than not, a few hours is often just not an option. Even the journalistic approach, where you try to seize any chance to do deep work, can become impossible when other people are continually relying on your feedback and support.
And then there’s the issue of distraction. Deep work hinges on being able to limit distractions – and in the modern workplace, that can seem near-impossible. Whether we’re working remotely or not, most of us use instant communication tools like Slack and email that are constantly pinging away. We also have to factor in meetings, that often seem to arise at the most inopportune times – and whether they’re virtual meetings or not, they still interrupt deep work and steal away our focus.
Plus, when you’re in a team, you’re usually working towards shared goals and deadlines even when you’re working independently. While it would be nice if each employee could block out a few hours a day to do deep work without being disrupted, the reality of teamwork isn’t quite so simple. Teams need to keep the workflow going. Deadlines are delayed, obstacles get in the way, and so effective communication is crucial to hitting targets and achieving goals. So what’s the solution?
Key takeaway: Unless you’re an academic professor or writing a book, the rhythmic philosophy is probably the most realistic option, especially for getting started with deep work for the first time.
Planning and structuring time forms a huge part of deep work, and Newport himself says he plans his work four weeks ahead of time. To begin with, though, you’ll probably just want to do it the week before starting. Look through your calendar and identify time periods that can be blocked off for deep work, remembering to factor in the times of day you’re most productive and focused. Then publicly schedule your deep work, so no one can book you for anything during those periods.
Deep work is a skill that needs to be developed – you can’t expect to just jump straight into four solid hours of deep work. Newport suggests starting with 60- to 90-minute sessions and gradually scaling them up if you experience consistent success. You can then batch relevant tasks together for meatier blocks of deep work. (This will require good knowledge of how long different tasks take you to stay achievable).
An automatic time tracker, like Timely, can help you define more realistic deep work sessions by showing how long different tasks take you and how you perform against your deep work plans.
Each deep work session should have a clear purpose and goal. Your brain is more engaged when it has a specific objective, and your time working deeply will yield more tangible results if you do.
So think about what important work you want to prioritize and what you want to achieve by the end of your session. While a simple notepad arguably does the trick, tools like Asana provide a clean digital space for breaking large objectives into manageable tasks suitable for deep work sessions.
Timely tip: Hone in on your highest-impact work during your deep work sessions by using one of the following prioritization methods.
Imposing time limits can intensify your deep work, shifting you into a “scarcity mindset” that helps focus your attention. Time blocking is a great method for this.
While Newport advocates for scheduling every minute of your day, time blocking doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It simply means dividing your activities into finite portions of time, so you allot the right amount of effort to each task. Time blocking shallow tasks like Slack and email using the Pomodoro method, for example, is a great way to limit their destructive potential.
All communication outside your deep working space can wait until you’re done. You need to be ruthless to make sure all your attention is focused on your set task. Mute your office communication tools, log out of email, delete your social apps and turn off your phone, if you can face it. Enable “Do Not Disturb” mode across your devices whenever you enter deep work.
It’s both about stopping people from interrupting you, and stopping you from distracting yourself. A huge part of that is about setting expectations around your availability. Too often, we use asynchronous communication tools synchronously – but doing deep work well means accepting that you shouldn’t be immediately available. You should decide when you want to allow shallow tasks and distractions in.
Did you achieve what you promised yourself you would? Take an unforgiving stance on this – deep work can unlock new levels of productivity, so if you’re not getting enough out of it reassess your approach. Without reviewing your performance, you can’t improve. Track how you spent your time and keep a score of how many deep work hours you’ve spent to create a sense of progress and productive pressure. Some people like to set milestones for each week (e.g. "read X number of pages" or "write X number of words") to keep them working to a set rate.
Automatic time tracking is your best friend here – it captures everything you work on across web and desktop apps, essentially holding up a mirror to your working day. You can see how long you spend in deep work, and identify the apps that demand most of your time.
Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest. So once you’ve completed a session of deep work, take a deep break. These are designed to give you a cognitive breather without introducing new distractions or stresses, so you can also use deep breaks to create healthy pauses throughout longer deep work sessions.
There are loads of different ways you can take a deep break, from going for a short walk and doing something practical, to reading an article. The only rules are that the activity you choose should be self-contained, unrelated to your deep work task, and ideally take no longer than 15 minutes to complete. Whatever you’re doing, be fully in the moment. Having presence and giving your full attention is essential to focusing for long periods of time.
One thing Newport stresses again and again, is that deep work isn’t easy. It requires effort – you need willpower to focus and incrementally push yourself to do longer sessions. But willpower is notoriously unreliable, being largely mood-driven. It’s also finite, and each time we break our focus or ask our brain to make a decision, we take from its limited store.
As such, we need to establish structured habits to reinforce our willpower. These routines should effectively reduce decision making and multitasking, to help us maximize the amount of deep work we can do in any given session. They are failsafe mechanisms for deep concentration – going beyond good intentions to help you lock your focus when it matters.
Routines which help sustain your deep thinking include:
Executing on “grand gestures” can help as well. Whether it’s renting a coworking space if you work from home, or moving to a dedicated room for days in the office, introducing a radical change into your environment for deep work can help increase its perceived importance and help you commit to it.
Digital tools are often cited as the mortal enemies of deep work, since they have huge potential to distract and derail our attention. But a select few can help set you up for success. Try using these smart tools to facilitate your deep work practice:
Meetings are prime obstacles to deep work – carving up long stretches of concentration, and creating bubbles of unproductive inter-meeting intervals. Clockwise tackles this solution head-on. It optimizes your calendar to free up blocks of uninterrupted time, effectively creating more space for unbroken deep work.
As an added bonus, this removes shallow work around meetings – like resolving meeting conflicts, navigating different time zones, and ensuring you still have time for lunch – leaving you with more mental energy for the tasks that actually matter.
Weekplan is a calendar and task organizer rolled into one. Use it to schedule deep work, set specific goals and rank your priorities. The “Parking Lot” section is great for noting down and containing undeveloped tasks – like those you receive from Slack and email – so they don’t work their way into your schedule.
Aside from offering a simple way to time block your deep work, Timely helps you estimate the time you’ll need for each task. It automatically tracks everything you work on across web and desktop, and visualizes the time you spend on every activity in a clean timeline view. Since every minute of the day is accounted for, you can also see where you get distracted and what apps you use the most.
For iOS and Android, Freedom remains one of the best tools for removing distractions – and because it works just as well on your laptop, it’s super handy if you work on the go, too. Block selected websites and desktop apps, or block the entire internet – it’s up to you. But, if you really want to knuckle down, try Locked Mode, which stops you from ending a block session, no matter how hard you want to take a sneak peek at Twitter.
Noisy work environments can impede deep work, but that doesn’t make sound itself disruptive – in fact, listening to the right kind of music can increase your productivity, spark creativity and support being present with the task at hand. Tools like Brain FM outsource the problem of finding the right concentration-compatible sounds.
We can’t solve complex problems or create new value without having space for undisturbed deep thinking. So in a world of constant digital distraction, those able to master their productive focus will thrive. This is the simple premise of deep work – to regularly push your cognitive capacities to their limits. With huge consequences for employee productivity, happiness and adaptability, it’s been touted as the world’s ultimate job skill for good reason.